It’s a big deal when Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski release mystery thrillers at the same time. Coincidentally, both Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer are set on islands and begin with the arrival of a boat coming directly into the frame.
The Ghost Writer draws the short straw against Scorsese’s stronger effort, but that's not to say Polanski has lost his touch. Co-written by Polanski with political journalist Robert Harris, upon whose novel the film is based, The Ghost Writer is full of plot holes yet still entices.
Ewan McGregor plays an unnamed English writer who takes up a surprisingly dangerous job as a ghostwriter/autobiographer for Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former British prime minister accused of war crimes. Following the mysterious drowning death of his literary predecessor, McGregor's ghostwriter sets up temporary shop in his publisher's American bunker-styled beachfront home, which Lang shares with his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and his mistress/assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall). Leaked information about Lang's involvement in the “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects forces Lang to take off on a United States PR tour to stanch his public bleeding in the media.
Meanwhile, the ghostwriter digs deeper into Lang's past, where disturbing secrets lie waiting. Despite Harris’ personal experience as a journalist once close to Tony Blair, upon whom Adam Lang is clearly modeled, the screenwriter fails to sufficiently ignite explosive plot points for Polanski to examine under his camera’s steady gaze.
Because of the sluggish way he approaches his work, McGregor is never entirely believable as a journalist. Given just six hours to read a manuscript that he must retool in a month's time, he reads aloud to himself rather than speed-reading it the way an actual editor would. He’s a protagonist who barely shifts attitudinal gears. Forgetting that he's being well paid to perform a task that ostensibly got the guy before him killed, he allows himself to be misdirected by such low orbiting forces as Lang's temperamental wife when the cat is away.
Within the concrete and glass surfaces of the modern beach house that Polanski films with fetishistic enthusiasm, we quickly comprehend the kind of politically charged isolation that Lang, and later his ghostwriter, experience. Lang’s spacious office has a floor-to-ceiling window that offers a stunning view of a foggy beach that waits beyond the room’s hermetic seal. When a news helicopter flies over, apparently for an inside look at the home’s inhabitants, the audience is pulled between a comfortable kind of claustrophobia and a threatening surveillance that breaks all sense of privacy.
The Ghost Writer arrives at a moment when political thrillers and mysteries are about to flood cinemas. The film is an enjoyable if not entirely satisfying experience. When the GPS system of the car that McGregor's character drives becomes a dead-end suspense device, you know you've been had. The redeeming factor is that you’ve been had by Polanski. Grade: B-
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